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Dear Michael Collins,
You’re going to the moon!
Well, technically, you’re not going to the moon. You’re going around the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are going to the moon. But still …
You’re going around the moon! It’s very exciting!!!
Dear Michael Collins,
It’s okay that you didn’t write me back. I thought you might, even though I didn’t ask specifically, because that is what people usually do when you write them a letter: they write you back. But maybe you were wondering, Why is this kid even writing to me in the first place? It’s okay if you are. People wonder about me a lot. I think that’s just something that happens when a person is not like other people.
Let me explain.
So there I was in class last week. It was the day before the last day before summer vacation. Our teacher, Mrs. Collins—
Don’t you think it’s funny that my teacher and you have the same last name? I do. It’s like she’s your wife or something. Which I know isn’t true. You have an entirely different wife. I know, because I asked my teacher. And you’re not Mrs. Collins’s brother or brother-in-law or cousin either. I know, because I asked those questions, too. Still, it’s kind of funny, right?
The questions about the names came later, but first what happened was this: Mrs. Collins asked us what we wanted to be when we grow up.
All the boys said they wanted to be astronauts. Billy Parker said it first. He didn’t even raise his hand before answering. Then the other boys shouted the same thing.
“Girls?” Mrs. Collins said. “What about you?”
Delores Doyle’s eyes got shiny, like Reverend Potter’s do in church when he talks about God or like my mom’s do when she talks about chocolate cake, and then she said, “I want to marry an astronaut!”
And you know something? She probably will. Delores Doyle’s skirts are always the right length, she has perfect knife-straight hair, and she even has the deluxe set of Magic Markers, the one with every color in the world. Her dad got it for her in the city, which is where his job is. I asked my dad once if he could switch his job to one in the city, like Mr. Doyle’s job, but he said that probably wasn’t a good idea, not even to get Magic Markers. He said he doubted Mr. Doyle’s law firm was looking to hire telephone linemen.
After Delores Doyle said she wanted to marry an astronaut, the other girls said the same thing.
Do you think that’s strange? All the boys want to be a thing and all the girls want to marry that thing? I think that’s strange.
“What about you, Mamie?” Mrs. Collins asked. “Do you want to be an astronaut or marry an astronaut?”
I had no choice but to answer. Usually, I do my best not to answer things in class, because of the risks. But when your name is right in the question like that, it’s unavoidable.
“Neither,” I said.
“Neither?” Mrs. Collins said.
Was there an echo in the room?
“Then what do you want to be when you grow up?” Mrs. Collins asked.
“How should I know?” I said, throwing my hands in the air. “I’m ten!”
Some of my classmates started to laugh.
I tried to explain. “How should I know what I’m going to want to be so many years from now? Wouldn’t it be foolish of me to try to predict—”
But apparently I was the fool, because my words were drowned out by more laughter.
See? That there. That’s the risk. You open your mouth, and people laugh at you.
This time, though, it wasn’t too bad, because Mrs. Collins immediately shifted the class into the assignment part, which I guess was where she’d been moving all along.
“Today we’re going to do something a little different,” Mrs. Collins said. “Everyone knows that, in the middle of July, three astronauts are leaving from Cape Kennedy in Florida and flying to the moon. Can you tell me what their names are?”
People started shouting. If you ask me, Mrs. Collins has trouble controlling a room. Does your Mrs. Collins have that kind of trouble, too?
“Neil Armstrong!” people shouted.
“Buzz Aldrin!” people shouted.
“And Michael Collins,” Mrs. Collins said when no one shouted anything else.
“And they’re going on Apollo 11!” Billy Parker shouted.
“Very good, Billy,” Mrs. Collins said. Then she wrote the three names on the blackboard: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., Michael Collins.
“The assignment,” Mrs. Collins said, “is that I want you each to select one astronaut to write a letter to. I’ll give you the address where you can send your letter, care of NASA. Okay, who wants to write to Neil Armstrong?”
A ton of hands shot up. But when the boys who put their hands up noticed that nearly all the girls had picked Neil Armstrong, too, those boys immediately pulled theirs down. Mrs. Collins counted raised hands and then placed that many check marks next to Neil Armstrong’s name.
“Why Neil Armstrong?” Mrs. Collins asked.
“Because he’s so dreamy,” Delores Doyle said.
“I can’t argue with you there,” Mrs. Collins said, laughing.
“And he’s the commander,” said Lisa Burke, who is Delores Doyle’s best friend.
So apparently, in addition to wanting to marry the thing that the boys all want to actually be, the girls also want that thing to be good-looking and have lots of power.
“Okay, who’s writing to Buzz Aldrin?” asked Mrs. Collins.
This time, every single boy in the room raised a hand. Some even raised both hands.
“He’s got the greatest name!” Billy Parker yelled before Mrs. Collins could ask the question we knew was coming. “Buzz!”
“Indeed he does.” Mrs. Collins laughed again. Then she counted hands and made check marks next to Buzz Aldrin’s name, just making a single one for each kid, even those who had both hands up. Once she was done doing that, she added up the total number of check marks. And once she was done with that, she turned around to the classroom, puzzled.
“Someone didn’t select an astronaut to write to,” Mrs. Collins said. Her gaze zeroed in on me. “Mamie? Did you pick an astronaut?”
There it was again: my name included in a question.
“Michael Collins,” I whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Collins said, placing a hand behind one ear. “I didn’t hear you.”
“MICHAEL COLLINS!” I said.
I couldn’t help it. There were those two other astronauts, with every check mark in the world beside their names. And there you were, with none.
“Oh.” Mrs. Collins looked surprised. But at least she put a check mark beside your name, even if it looked kind of lonely up there by itself. “Can you tell us why?”
I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it was because when I saw all those check marks for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin but none after your name, it made me feel a weird kind of sad for you. So instead I said: “Because he’s the best one.”
That’s when it really happened, so much worse than before. Everyone laughed at me. Even Mrs. Collins cracked a smile before covering her mouth with her chalky hand. The laughter, it was so loud, like in the Peanuts comic strip when Charlie Brown says something and the response to that looks like HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!, with HA!s as far as the strip allows, everyone laughing so loud it’s like a tidal wave of sound that could knock a person over, just washing her out to sea.
“That’s so stupid!” Billy Parker guffawed. “Michael Collins? He’s not even going to the moon!”
“Of course he is,” I said. Now who was the one being stupid? Everyone in the country except for babies and people in comas knew that three astronauts were going to the moon and what those astronauts’ names were.
“Not really.” Billy Parker had trouble talking, he was laughing at me so hard.
“What do you mean?” I said—and while I hate to use the word, it’s the only one that applies here—dumbly.
Billy Parker took a deep breath and said with a bit more patience than I was used to from him, “Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are the ones who will walk on the moon. Michael Collins is just going to be orbiting it. So he won’t walk on the moon, not ever. He has to stay with the ship.”
The whole class nodded. Apparently, this was common knowledge. But I hadn’t known. I guess that’s because I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind lately.
I thought of you then. I thought of you coming so close to the moon, how you’ll be coming closer to it than all but two other people in the entire history of the world so far, and still you won’t be able to touch it, at least not on this trip.
“Well,” I said, folding my arms across my chest to show I meant business, “I don’t care. I’m still going to write to him. He’s still the best one.”
Of course the laughter came again then, like a bucket of icy rainwater pouring over my head.
But that was okay, too, because this was the last assignment of the year and once we were done with our letters we started talking about Vietnam, which Mrs. Collins has us do a lot. I know it’s an important subject, Vietnam, but sometimes it is hard to truly understand what is going on there since that country is so far away, particularly when a person is still in elementary school.
So now you know, Michael Collins. You know why I wrote that last letter to you: because I had to. It was a school assignment, I said I’d do it, and I did it.
But this time? I wrote to you because I wanted to. I wanted to explain, and now I have.
Text copyright © 2017 by Lauren Baratz-Logsted